2009 NFC South Predictions: Panthers, Saints Look Good

Pete TreperinasCorrespondent IAugust 29, 2009

NEW ORLEANS - DECEMBER 28:  DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Carolina Panthers jumps over Sedrick Ellis #98 of the New Orleans Saints on December 28, 2008 at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5-11

There are a lot of uncertainties about Tampa Bay this year. 

When Jon Gruden was let go, the Bucs got rid of virtually all of their coaches, and the majority of the veterans who had been playing there for a while. Ike Hilliard, Jeff Garcia, Cato June, Warrick Dunn, Joey Galloway, and Derrick Brooks were the most notable.

This season, it looks like Luke McCown will be the starting quarterback. McCown doesn't have a whole lot of experience, but back in 2007 he played games and looked good. 

The Bucs are in a rebuilding year right now, and I wouldn't expect to see McCown behind center for more than a year or so. With the 17th pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Tampa Bay took quarterback Josh Freeman from Kansas State. If all goes well, Freeman will be the future at quarterback in Tampa. 

One aspect of the Buccaneers that I like is their running game. With Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward in the backfield, Tampa Bay's running should pick up the slack for a passing game that may not be that great. And if Cadillac Williams is healthy, that should make them even better. 

It's going to take a few years for the Bucs to get back to the top of the South. 

3. Atlanta Falcons: 7-9

Matt Ryan had a phenomenal rookie season, Michael Turner was one of the best running backs in the league, and Mike Smith did a terrific job in his first year as a head coach.

Things won't be so peachy this year for the Falcons. 

Some people seem to believe that the NFL strength of schedule doesn't mean a whole lot, but for Atlanta this year, it definitely does. They'll play both the NFC East and AFC East, not to mention the NFC South is talented also. 

I'm not knocking the Falcon's talent, because Ryan and Turner will both probably have good years, and they added Tony Gonzalez. But my biggest concern is that this won't be enough.

It won't be enough because Atlanta's defense isn't going to be very special this year. Up-and-coming cornerback Domonique Foxworth signed a four-year deal with Baltimore this offseason, leaving the Falcons' secondary looking bleak. 

John Abraham will provide some leadership for a defense that is pretty young and looking to get better. 

2. New Orleans Saints: 10-6

With one of the best (if not the best) offenses in the NFL, the New Orleans Saints should contend for the NFC South this year. 

Drew Brees should have another big year, and he has a great group to throw to in Lance Moore, Marques Colston, and Jeremy Shockey at tight end.

It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Brees will be a Pro Bowler this year, and he'll probably throw for around 4,000 yards and about 30 touchdowns. What we don't know about the Saints is if their running game will be rejuvenated in '09.

Reggie Bush has dealt with injuries over the last two seasons, but it appears that he's nearly healthy again after having surgery this offseason. I really think that this is the season that Bush will need to return to his rookie season form in order for New Orleans to make the playoffs, let alone have a winning record. 

Pierre Thomas provided the Saints with a back-up running back to fall back on when Bush got hurt last year. In five starts, Thomas rushed for nine touchdowns and 625 yards.

Similar to the Atlanta Falcons, the Saints rely heavily on their offense and struggle on the defensive side of the ball. While New Orleans led the NFL in both total offense and passing in 2008, they finished 23rd in defense. 

The D will be better this year. Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins has a year of experience under his belt. New Orleans also has Jonathan Vilma, and newcomer Darren Sharper to turn to. This unit could be revamped this season.

I like the Saints to win 10.

1. Carolina Panthers: 11-5

After an early exit from the postseason in 2008, I feel like the Panthers have something to prove this yearthey can win in the regular season and the playoffs.

DeAngelo Williams broke out last season with 20 touchdowns and 1,600 yards, and he should be one of the top running backs in the NFL this season. Williams is only entering his fourth year in the league, and has great hand, not fumbling once last season. Throw Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith in with Williams and you're set.

The Panthers' defense was a bit of a problem last season. They addressed that problem this offseason by adding defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, who spent the last seven seasons in Indianapolis

Meeks was partially responsible for the development of Dwight Freeney, and I could see him doing the same with another young defensive end in rookie Everette Brown. Brown will spend time behind Julius Peppers which can't hurt his development either. 

Carolina is one of the most well-rounded teams in the NFL this year as well. They have a top-five running back (and a solid back-up in Jonathan Stewart), a reliable quarterback, and a possibly revamped defense.

I think the Panthers have what it takes to edge out the Saints by a slim margin.